PAXTONIA, Pa. Immigration hard-liner Rep. Lou Barletta is one of President Trump’s most loyal supporters, but he is facing an uphill battle in Pennsylvania in his bid to unseat two-term Democratic Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr.
In a state where Mr. Trump pulled off a major upset over Hillary Clinton in 2016, Mr. Barletta has been trailing Mr. Casey by double digits in polls.
“Congressman Barletta is fighting against the tides right now,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion in Allentown. “It’s not 2016 anymore.”
Mr. Trump’s popularity in Pennsylvania has eroded since he became the first Republican presidential nominee to win the state in 28 years. In a Morning Consult poll released in July, the president had a net approval rating of minus-6 percentage points, with 45 percent approving and 51 percent disapproving.
In January 2017, the same poll had him with a 49 percent approval and 39 percent disapproval rating.
But support for Mr. Casey also appears soft in polling.
Cara Grossfeld, a Barletta supporter and a stay-at-home mom in Hummelstown, said the midterm primary elections and special elections so far this year show voters are still looking for change.
“People have changed their views so much because of the presidential election,” she said. “They don’t really look at it as a Republican/Democrat thing anymore.”
Her partner, Jeremie White, 37, said he likes Mr. Barletta because he is “down to earth.” As for Mr. Casey, son of a well-known Pennsylvania governor, Mr. White said: “His dad made the name; he’s riding the coattails. That’s what everyone says. It doesn’t seem like he’s done that much.”
But Mr. White, who voted for Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas in the 2016 Republican presidential primary, still isn’t sold on Mr. Trump.
“The wall was supposed to be built how many years ago?” he said, referring to Mr. Trump’s promise of a permanent barrier along the U.S.-Mexico border.
Anita Rankin, 57, a Republican judge of elections in New Providence Township in Lancaster County, said she is “still looking and listening” to the Senate candidates.
“I don’t like slime campaigns,” she said. “I don’t want to hear bad stuff about the other person.”
Mrs. Rankin she said she is a conservative whose voting decisions are driven by “the truth, and to live in a place under God.”
“I vote with a conscience that it’s immoral for our legislation to continue to kill babies, to state that marriage is not one man and one woman,” she said. “This isn’t a presidential election, but this is absolutely vital for our country.”
An Axios/Survey Monkey poll released in early July showed Mr. Casey with a 14-point lead, 55 percent to 41 percent.
Mr. Barletta also trails significantly in fundraising. An official with the deep-pocketed Koch network told The Washington Times that the group isn’t planning to spend money on the Senate race in Pennsylvania.
Mr. Barletta has been crisscrossing the state this month on a bus tour that he calls “Red, White and Lou,” with his golden retriever, Reilly. He is encouraged by a Morning Consult poll showing that only 32 percent of voters believe Mr. Casey should be rewarded with a third term despite holding statewide office for a total of more than two decades.
In the survey, 44 percent said they believe it’s time for a new senator. That gives Mr. Barletta’s supporters hope that he can gain traction with the argument that Mr. Casey is a do-nothing lawmaker.
This week, Mr. Barletta will be holding events to highlight his proposal for new federal school safety guidelines, including increased funding for metal detectors. His rhetoric portrays himself as a Washington outsider.
“Congress enjoys the best security in the world paid for by taxpayer dollars, but our kids go to school every day defenseless,” he said Sunday. “As our kids go back to school, we start yet another year where Congress refuses to step up and address needed security for our schools.”
The 62-year-old Republican and former mayor of Hazleton also isn’t shying away from his bond with Mr. Trump, who campaigned for him in northeastern Pennsylvania this month. He is criticizing Mr. Casey as an obstructionist, pointing to the incumbent’s pledge to block Mr. Trump’s Supreme Court nominee before the president even announced his choice of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh.
Mr. Barletta spoke to energy industry leaders at the Marcellus Shale Coalition Conference last week about the need to continue advancing Mr. Trump’s energy policies.
‘Not easy to demonize’
“Pennsylvania could be a state among nations because of our natural gas and coal supplies,” Mr. Barletta said. “The potential for job creation and wage growth is enormous. But Washington needs to stop interfering, and the president needs an ally in the Senate. I’m committed to working with the president to support policies that will keep growing Pennsylvania’s energy production so that we can continue to create good-paying jobs here in Pennsylvania and stop relying on foreign countries for our energy.”
Another factor that should work in Mr. Barletta’s favor is the economy. The state’s unemployment rate was 4.2 percent in July. In the Axios poll, 43 percent of Pennsylvanians said the national economy is now better off than it was a year ago, with 29 percent saying it was the same and 26 percent saying it has worsened.
Mr. Borick, who is also a political science professor at Muhlenberg College, said Mr. Barletta is tied to the president for better or worse.
“It’s hard to find someone on the ballot nationally who’s more connected to the president than congressman Barletta,” he said. “He was an early supporter of the president, the president has been very ardent in his support for congressman Barletta. They are attached. Given the president’s standing, the historic nature of midterms during a president’s first term, I don’t know if that’s a good place to be.”
“His very best hope is that the president has a great fall [campaign], and by November the president’s standing is much better than it’s been, and he’s not an anchor,” Mr. Borick said. “Historically, knocking off an incumbent in Pennsylvania doesn’t happen that often. Bartletta needs a lot of breaks to somehow go his way. I don’t see the breaks on paper at this point.”
Mr. Barletta also has been campaigning against Mr. Casey’s support for sanctuary cities such as Philadelphia. At the campaign rally this month, Mr. Trump told voters that Mr. Casey is for “open borders” and has opposed every one of his proposals to toughen immigration policy and border security.
He also came up with a nickname for the low-key Mr. Casey.
“Sleeping Bob,” Mr. Trump announced to the crowd. “That’s it Sleeping Bob.
“I hear that Bob Casey is afraid to debate Lou Barletta,” Mr. Trump told the crowd. “Is the president of the United States allowed to come into the debate forum? Is he allowed to sit in the front row watching Lou Barletta destroy Bob Casey? That will be great entertainment.”
He called Mr. Barletta “a star.”
“I knew people would get to know him, and know his name across this great state,” Mr. Trump said.
Mr. Casey’s camp points to nearly four dozen bills that have become law, in part or in their entirety, through his sponsorship, including a measure that allows families to establish tax-free savings accounts to pay for the long-term needs of children with disabilities.
After the president’s rally for Mr. Barletta, which drew about 10,000 supporters in Wilkes-Barre, Mr. Casey presented himself as someone who can work across the aisle.
“I’m thankful to President Trump for signing into law three of my bills in the last four months, including the first major workforce training bill in 12 years,” Mr. Casey said. “My job is to get results for Pennsylvania’s workers, seniors and middle class, and I’ll work with anyone to do that. I’ve worked with both parties to restore health care for coal miners, rebuild our roads and bridges, and combat the opioid crisis.”
He said he has “backed the administration’s plan to get tough on China for cheating on trade and opposed the administration’s plan to end protections for those with pre-existing conditions because I will always put Pennsylvanians first.”
Mr. Casey began airing a campaign ad this month accusing Mr. Barletta of voting to end Medicare in 2011 in a plan crafted by then-Rep. Paul D. Ryan, Wisconsin Republican and Budget Committee chairman. Mr. Barletta’s campaign spokesman said the claim has been refuted by independent fact-checkers as the “lie of the year” and that the Ryan plan would have restructured Medicare to offer recipients more options to buy their own insurance.
The incumbent said he is not running against Mr. Trump, and he accused Mr. Barletta of voting “in lockstep with a corporate special interest agenda that is stacking the deck against working families and holding Pennsylvania’s middle class back.”
Mr. Borick said Mr. Casey is a difficult target for a challenger, in part because of his low profile.
“He’s someone who’s not easy to demonize in the vein of Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer,” Mr. Borick said of the Democratic leadership on Capitol Hill. “He is boring; he’ll tell you he’s boring. It’s a challenge.”